It’s been over ten years since World of Warcraft took the world by storm, and in that time, a whole slew of online games in other genres have been learning lessons from its success.
That means now, in 2017, the still-going-strong World of Warcraft does have to indirectly compete with games like Destiny and League of Legends for player attention, as both games have taken core elements of the Warcraft formula and evolved them into new genres. Destiny’s built a first-person shooter with raids, League and other MOBAs yanked the most popular mod from Warcraft 3 to build their own empires on.
With that in mind, we reached out to Blizzard with a question for the current stewards of Warcraft: what new features in the Battle for Azeroth expansion help the long-running MMORPG stand out from its new competitors?
Thankfully, creative director Alex Afrasiabi and production director John Haigt had some interesting insight for us about how island explorations are helping World of Warcraft create new co-operative experiences that help the game continue to evolve.
"How do you make randomization become a thing that isn't really frustrating when you get the wrong seed?"
First, a quick breakdown of why the announced “island expeditions” are a notable feature for World of Warcraft. In Battle for Azeroth, islands are instances meant to be experienced with multiple players in a party, just like dungeons. The key difference is, when the instance loads, not only will the loot tables be different every time, the enemies and encounters on each island will be different too.
Since this expansion focuses on a renewed conflict between The Alliance and The Horde, players will either be pitted against an AI team representing the opposite faction, or if they choose, an actual group of opposing players, as they all race for the same randomly-generated goal. Many of these goals involve gathering Azerite, the new resource players can use to participate in end-game progression, but they may also involve killing specific enemies before the other team does.
Afrasiabi jokes that this randomly-driven encounter design is a kind of “holy grail of gaming,” since it hopefully ensures that each push into the Islands is fresher than the usual scripted content seen in Warcraft raids. “We had years of experience building this content, how do we make something more compelling? How do we make something that doesn't become stale after X uses,” asked Afrasiabi. “That led us down the path of randomization. How do you make randomization become a thing that isn't really frustrating when you get the wrong seed?”
"This kind of challenge opens the door for unusual party configurations, meaning a 3-healer party could succeed in the same way a traditional tank/DPS/healer party could."
Now that Afrasiabi and his team have had time to explore that idea, he says the biggest difference between these two forms of design is that dungeons, like his favorite raid The Halls of Valor, do a very good job delivering large encounters that reward practice but diminish “newness” over time.
But on the islands, Afrasiabi says that they’ve been able to explore more emergent gameplay, with “little mini stories and micro-stories that are happening across these island explorations. Hopefully, the tenth run, the twentieth run, it's different enough because of the randomization and the AI that you don't feel like ‘man I've seen this before.’”
Part of the reason there’s more emergent play in islands, is performing well in them involves less prescribed choreography and a more give-and-take interaction with the game’s artificial intelligence or players from the opposite faction that are racing for the same goal as you. Haigt adds that this kind of challenge opens the door for unusual party configurations, meaning a 3-healer party could succeed in the same way a traditional tank/DPS/healer party could.
"The way islands are designed, players won’t be focusing on mastery and memorization so much as they will improvisation."
Island encounters are also a lot shorter than raids, lasting 15-20 minutes instead of…well, hours, so there’s a big incentive for the Warcraft team to avoid that repetitive raid feel. “We want to make sure that all those prolonged play sessions you're not [thinking] ‘this dungeon is awesome, but it can't be awesome forever,’” says Afrasiabi.
Haigt notes that the way islands are designed, players won’t be focusing on mastery and memorization so much as they will improvisation. “So it's not a scripted behavior in the same way that a dungeon boss has. They're going to react to you in the way that you act towards them,” he explains. “So it's stimuli and response. It's going to feel very different.”
There are a few other new features in Battle for Azeroth that are intended to shake up the traditional endgame formula. Warfronts, for instance, is a Horde-versus-Alliance-themed PvE feature that re-introduces strategy game mechanics to the Warcraft universe, as 20 players group up to manage an army of units while still running around the battlefields themselves.
What’s interesting about this feature is that Afrasiabi says the original intent wasn’t to re-introduce classic Warcraft mechanics, but while building this mode they found they could call back to them while doing something different. “There's always that breakpoint when you're making a new game system where it goes from being not fun to fun,” he explains. “And that was our breakpoint, when we're like ‘actually, we've already got things to reference and it feels like it really fulfills that fantasy of a world at war and it's something we can kind of harken back to fondly.’”
As more online games use events and their own raiding systems to drive player retention, it’s interesting to see Blizzard go the extra mile in adding new instance-driven features with this expansion. With randomization and strategy mechanics back on the table, it’ll be interesting to watch these features grow once Battle for Azeroth launches.